Berkeley Bites: The Bread Workshop’s Bill Briscoe

William (Bill) Briscoe has been in the food business for more than 30 years.

He started as a dishwasher, went on to work as a short-order cook in a steakhouse, then did stints in five-star restaurants around the Bay Area and attended culinary school. In 1989, he decided to open a wholesale bakery serving mostly restaurant clients.

The Bread Workshop, which moved to new digs on University Avenue in 2004, now includes a cafe that’s open for brunch, lunch and dinner. The cafe sells sandwiches, pastries and coffee drinks, along with rotisserie chicken, soups, salads, steaks and burgers. And bread, of course, which you’ll also find at Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market.

The Bread Workshop’s sandwiches are rated #2 in the Bay Area on Baylist, sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle and SF Gate. The cafe’s sandwiches also got a nod recently from a Berkeleyside reader commenting on our story on sandwiches around town.

Briscoe, who turns 50 next week, has four children and lives in central Berkeley.

1. Where do you eat out as a family?

We go to Picante. It’s a great place to take kids — everyone can find something they like to eat — and it’s a family-friendly environment. Plus, they serve Margaritas and it’s right next to the soccer fields where my son and I play.

2. What’s a challenging aspect of doing food business in Berkeley?

Running a place in a sustainable way. I combine my passion for food with my concern for the environment in my workplace. That means making decisions every day about what we buy and what we use. For instance, if we buy beans from China that are organic, what does that really mean? Who certifies organic food in China and are they legitimate? What is the carbon footprint of shipping beans versus having them trucked in or flown in from somewhere else? I need to investigate all these things before I’m comfortable selling organic beans from China in my cafe, which I do.  It all takes time.

3. What’s missing in the local food scene?

There’s no restaurant in town with farm-to-table aspirations like Mudd’s in San Ramon, which served food — from its own gardens — for 27 years. It went out of business in 2008.  I guess the cost of land in Berkeley could make that prohibitive. There’s also no place for people interested in food to get a sustainable culinary education. Some places teach this stuff on the edges, but I’m talking about an entire professional academy dedicated to sustainable culinary education.

4. Can you name a favorite vendor you work with?

Berkeley Youth Alternatives. They run a garden program for teens in the neighborhood. They’ll call us up and we’ll take whatever they’ve got. We get our flowers from them. Last week it was fava beans.  I like it when our sustainable food comes directly from our own community.

5. What’s the most remarkable aspect of Berkeley’s food culture?

It draws people with talent and vision. Before Alice Waters, Berkeley food was in the dark ages; she showed us what food could be. Ann Cooper did a great job coming into the schools, seeing what needed to change, and doing it. She found a way to get good food to kids and make it work like a business. Then over at UC we have people like Ignacio Chapela, the environmental science professor who’s trying to safeguard seeds. He’s bringing our attention to things we need to be careful about in terms of how we produce food, as does, of course, Michael Pollan.

6. What’s great about the restaurants here?

It’s fairly eclectic — you can find a little bit of everything.  Drive down Shattuck Avenue and at one end of the spectrum you have Chez Panisse and Cesar, which routinely make Bay Area best restaurant lists. As you get closer to downtown there’s Zatar, dishing up Mediterranean cuisine in a place that can fit about 15 people. Across the street there’s a Turkish-style store selling food for $5-$6 a plate, right next to a taco joint, then you hit the city center, where you’ll find a McDonald’s. You know a lot of people don’t realize we have a McDonald’s downtown. People choose to see what they want to see.

On University Avenue we have a plethora of mom-and-pop places dishing up decent ethnic eats or they wouldn’t survive. We’ve even got Temple Tiki Bar and Grill, which serves Hawaiian barbeque, and a Cheese Steak Shop.

Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing. Henry is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. A contributor to the food policy blog Civil Eats, she muses about food, family and growing greens on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale.

If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to sarahhenry0509@gmail.com or leave a comment here.

To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.

[Photo: Sarah Henry]

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  • Lars

    I’m glad Zatar (http://zatarrestaurant.com) gets a mention about being a great local restaurant – but to the assertion that no restaurants in Berkeley have farm-to-table aspirations, it should be noted that Zatar grows a large majority of its vegetables at the owner’s home in Oakland, which might be true for many restaurants around here. I recommend checking out Zatar for lunch on Fridays.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.wordpress.com/ Sarah Henry

    Hi Lars,

    Thanks for chiming in here.

    While editing this piece I was delighted to discover that the owners of Zatar do indeed have a thriving produce garden at their Oakland home full of veggies, herbs, and fruits such as pomegranates, persimmons, and mulberries. And much of this bounty finds its way into the restaurant’s dishes.

    You can see photos of their garden here:
    http://www.zatarrestaurant.com/garden.html

    I think Bill’s point — about a farm-to-table restaurant actually in Berkeley, side-by-side, still stands, but I’d be happy to hear otherwise.

  • tizzielish

    I don’t know what Bill Briscoe means by farm-to-table and I don’t know what Cancun, the Mexican restaurant in downtown Berkeley means by farm-to-table . . but Cancun has signs and statements on their menu saying they use food from their own farm.

    I am not clear that Bill Briscoe’s point was a farm-to-table, side-by-side. . . what city has such an establishment?! Are there restaurants in cities with urban farms adjacent to them?

  • http://lettuceeatkale.wordpress.com/ Sarah Henry

    The are indeed, Tizzielish.

    In Bill’s comments (above) he refers to Mudd’s, which had veggie gardens adjacent to the restaurant. And Thomas Keller, of course, has a wonderful produce farm across the street from the French Laundry.

    I’m sure others will chime in with examples of rooftop or courtyard gardens in SF or Oakland — maybe even in Berkeley — that provide fruits or greens for the restaurants on site.

  • s z underwood

    “Farm to table” for a full service restaurant in Berkeley’s clime is not a sustainable concept gastronomically. It might be an interesting gimmick and enjoy a limited popularity run, but ultimately the quality of the produce and the variety would be severely limited.

    In our garden, we grow five or six rotating crops, plus berries and three different fruit trees. All of these provide varying yield with Berkeley’s relatively cool maritime zone climate and heavy clay soils, but depending on the mix of sun, rain and warmth, the quality of the produce from the backyard is not necessarily better (more ripe, sweet, flavorful etc.) than what is being sold at Monterey Market, BB or the local Famer’s Markets on any given day.

    Those of you who also augment your fresh vegetables with delivery services like the ones Full Belly Farm (among others) offers locally, can also attest to the fact that even a larger farm, with better soil and climate often has a limited fare to offer at certain times of year at the peak of ripeness or perfection.

    While it may be true that with an enormous amount of effort and dogged soil augmentation, you can to some extent overcome the limited drainage of heavy loam type soils, it’s still very difficult to approximate the ideal year round growing conditions in “bread baskets” like the Salinas Valley or to simulate the summer warmth of the Central or Coachella Valley.

    Plus every small urban lot or garden has some type of inherent limitation of sun exposure, shade from adjacent buildings and what not which limit how much can be effectively grown in the space. The fog’s breath looms large here in the warm summer months. There are no remaining wide open valleys in the Bay Area which the sun’s warmth kisses from dawn to dusk as in our agricultural centers.

    “Farm to table” at a Berkeley restaurant ultimately makes about as much sense as “farm to bakery” where The Bread Workshop would try to grow in an adjacent urban lot all of the “hard winter wheat” generally used in most professional bread baking operations.

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